Study shows rewarding dogs with praise and petting helps them learn better

dog training learning style
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Dogs’ learning success is enhanced when they are not only rewarded with food, but also praised and petted for their good performance, according to a new study by researchers in Hungary. 

The ethologists from the Department of Ethology at ELTE Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest investigated the relations among emotions, learning and sleep. Their results—published in Scientific Reports—shed light on how learning style and sleep affect dogs’ behaviour and learning success.

“It is natural and ordinary for family dogs to learn in emotionally charged social situations, either from their owners or from dog trainers,” first author Dr Vivien Reicher said.  

“However, our knowledge of this phenomenon so far is mainly based on studies in humans and laboratory rodents.”

The researchers developed a unique methodology: in the presence of the owner, dog trainers taught new command words for tricks the dogs already knew. For example, they used the command word in English, ‘high five’ instead of the familiar Hungarian version, ‘pacsi’.

Each dog was given two training sessions, one in a ‘permissive’ style, where the trainers used lots of praise and petting in addition to a treat, and never scolded the dogs, and another in a ‘controlling’ style, where the dogs were reinforced only with a treat, without verbal praise or petting, and they were scolded for unwanted behaviour.

After the training sessions, the researchers tested the dogs’ success in learning the new command words before and after sleep. The dogs’ sleep was analysed using EEG scans to study brain function related to memory consolidation.

The results showed that ‘controlling’ training induced greater stress in the dogs. They sought the proximity of their owners more and slept more after training, confirming previous research that sleep plays an important role in emotion processing. 

Interestingly, their learning was more successful the first time (compared to the second occasion) regardless of training style, and permissive or controlling styles had no effect per se. The reason for this may be that information learned first is often easier to remember than what is learned later in a similar context.

“The most exciting result is that sleep improved the dogs’ learning performance only in one specific case, when the group that received ‘controlling’ training for the first time expected to receive similar training for the second time, but then we trained them in a ‘permissive’ style,” Dr Márta Gácsi, said.

“We believe the combined effect of positive surprise and sleep improved their learning success.”

The results of the research highlight the important role that social reinforcement (praise, petting) plays in dogs’ wellbeing and learning success. The lack of social reinforcement or scolding can cause stress for dogs, especially if they are being taught by a trainer, and this should be considered when choosing teaching methods.

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